Home sweet home, and the bitter road back

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(c) Michael Brosilow

Kamal Angelo Bolden plays Cephus Miles and Ashley Honore is his sweetheart Pattie Mae (and a lot of other characters) in Samm-Art Williams' "Home" at Court Theatre. 

Review: “Home” by Samm-Art Williams
Court Theatre, Chicago

Home may be simply a place in the heart, but getting there can be an arduous journey.

Cephus  Miles, a black man full of love and goodness, discovers just how long, convoluted and difficult that trip can be in playwright Samm-Art Williams’ “Home,” now on affectionate and soul-warming display at the Court Theatre.

Williams, 64, born Samuel Arthur Williams in Burgaw, N.C., began his own acting career in the early 1970s with New York City’s Negro Ensemble Company, which first produced “Home” in 1979.  The bittersweet comedy soon moved to Broadway and garnered a Tony nomination as best new play in 1980. 

As imaginative as it is touching, "Home" offers a testament to self-understanding and faith. Coming of age in Crossroads, N.C., Cephus Miles has his roots in the soil his family works as share-croppers. His life, to his way of thinking, is bountiful. He has the soft earth beneath his feet, a canopy of stars and people who love and guide him: a stern grandfather and a kindly uncle. He also has a prospective wife in the beautiful, spirited Pattie Mae.

Then, one by one, the seams of his neatly knit-up life begin to split, until one day, in the fullness of his young manhood, Cephus finds himself alone, displaced, bereft of every treasured thing, every joy.  Family, sweetheart, home, freedom itself: all are lost. Now, disoriented and clinging to life by its rough edges, Cephus begins an unmapped journey through darkness and briars.

But there’s a funny thing about life’s buffeting, about stumbling and falling and getting up and getting back on the road, maybe the road home. Viewed from a distance, from the front porch steps, such a history can lend itself to a poetic retelling replete with colorful characters, fanciful incidents and slyly seasoned humor.

Samm-Art Williams’ “Home” offers nothing less, and it is brought ever so sweetly to light by an enchanting, multi-hatted cast of three players directed with impeccable style, wit and grace by Ron OJ Parson.

Kamal Angelo Bolden brings a disarmingly simple honesty to Cephus, whose tribulations he attributes to an inattentive God who must be overstaying his vacation in Miami. Thus Cephus rolls with the bad stuff and waits for a break when God finally gets back.

But life’s little annoyances turn serious when Cephus is drafted for duty in the Vietnam War, and runs afoul of Uncle Sam by pointing out the commandments that say “thou shall not kill” and “love thy neighbor.” Bolden is both a natural story-teller and a skilled actor of arresting fluency. As Cephus’ tumultuous fortunes take him to the North with the promise of a new, swingin’ lifestyle, Bolden makes us resonate first to this rube’s inflated expectations, then to the despair that besets a man whose heart we’ve come to know.

All along the way, from farmstead to the city lights, Cephus’ journey is attended by a multitude of wonderful characters impersonated by two quick-change actors, Ashley Honore (whose primary role is that of Cephus’ beloved Pattie Mae) and Tracey N. Bonner, whose trunkful of guises and riotous shifts in persona infuse this play with a great part of its charm.

Honore is lovely as the buoyant farm girl destined by the two families’ mutual agreement to be Cephus’ wife. She also’s very funny as Pattie Mae spars with Cephus on the issue of how much sparking crosses the line of pre-marital propriety.  Honore takes on assorted identities, at one point marching through Cephus’ beleaguered life as a soldier of the Salvation Army.

But it’s Bonner’s one-person population that fills the stage with memorable characters – a jumpin’, Bible-thumpin’ preacher, a big-city temptress, a home-boy writing to the folks from Nam, a village scold. One character exists for a scene, another for a few zesty seconds. They’re all priceless. And all are put to evocative use by director Parson in a narrative that ebbs and flows at such perfectly gauged tempos that you never notice this show has run an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.

Through Dec. 12. www.CourtTheatre.org. Call (773) 753-4472.

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Lawrence B. Johnson is a performing arts critic specializing in theater and classical music. He is the former international wine writer for The Detroit News. The recipient of many journalism awards, Johnson has written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Detroit News, The Milwaukee Sentinel and magazines running the gamut from Musical America and Opera News to Playboy. Johnson, who grew up in Indiana, is a graduate of Indiana State University, where he received a degree in humanistic studies with concentrations in French literature, philosophy and music history. In 1975, he was awarded a mid-career journalism fellowship by the National Endowment for the Humanities for study at the University of Michigan, where he focused on classical Greek drama, Shakespeare and modern playwrights. He has taught journalism, criticism and music history at Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wayne State University and the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.